- Beyond Spectacle: Eliza Haywood's Female Spectators
Juliette Merritt's study of Eliza Haywood's fiction is a valuable addition to the burgeoning field of Haywood studies. The first book-length study of Haywood by a single author since Mary Anne Schofield's largely biographical Eliza Haywood (1985), Merritt's book marks a turning point in the field. As Kirsten Saxton commented in her introduction to the first book-length collection of essays on Haywood, The Passionate Fictions of Eliza Haywood (2000), contemporary critical work on Haywood, in its wide 'range and depth,' testifies to her importance both to her age and ours. Merritt's study, in its careful attention to the nuances of Haywood's fiction, bears out Saxton's assertion. Merritt's book considers five of Haywood's novels in depth, as well as much of the rest of Haywood's enormous fictional, dramatic, and periodical oeuvre as counterpoint to her arguments about the novels. Chapters on Love in Excess, Fantomina, The British Recluse, and The Invisible Spy with Bath Intrigues give a comprehensive overview of Haywood's shifting articulations of the relationship between romance and spectacle, text and sex, over the course of her long and varied career. Merritt's central concern is to tease out Haywood's uses of the visual and spectacular to interrogate gendered power dynamics. To this end, she grounds her argument in contemporary theories of spectacle, coming, for the most part, out of psychoanalytic theory and its reinterpretation by film theorists. Haywood's representation of female agency, exemplified by her appropriation of spectatorship, Merritt argues, provides an important case study for feminist work in 'theoriz[ing] the woman's gaze.'
The real joy of this study is in Merritt's close readings. Her sensitive reading of the bed-trick in Love in Excess, for example, really pulls the text together thematically. I suddenly understood Love in Excess as a story about female voyeurism being recreated as female spectacle, and about Haywood's interrogation of both practices. Merritt's reading of mask and masquing in Fantomina, too, really struck a chord; Fantomina's fundamental unavailability to masculine control is neatly summed up in Merritt's reading of the split identity of the masked woman. On the other hand, I found it puzzling that Merritt consistently read the sexualized display of masculinity as a display of male power, while the sexualized display of [End Page 271] femininity was also read as a display of male power, even when the descriptive language seemed to me to be very similar in both scenarios. And again, it seemed strange to me to describe a scene in Love in Excess that includes the phrase 'to feast their ravish'd Eyes with gazing on each other's Beauty' (emphasis mine) as an example of 'the irresistible power of the male gaze.' Merritt observes cleverly that Haywood's work claims a space for female authorship and thus for female authority through the manipulation of the spectatorial position; her argument would fit very nicely with an exploration of the transgressive ways in which agency might be conceived of by Haywood, ways that might, in the end, be less closely tied to occupying the position of spectator than Merritt argues.
Related to these objections is my feeling that I would have liked to see an examination of how subject-object relations, and how they map onto gender, might operate differently in the early modern period. I think, for example, of royal spectacle, and how, as Stephen Orgel observed, the sight-lines of court masques were set up, not simply so that the King might have the best view, but also that he might be at the centre of the courtiers' view. Or of Francis Bacon's cranky essay on love, in which he argues that to become a 'subject ... of the eye' in love is to become an idolater, and lose all reason. It seems to me, then, that a differently nuanced power might accrue to spectacle in the early modern period, and that some of that power might have...